A Dime’s Worth of Difference: What the Second Presidential Debate Reveals

presidential-debate-town-hall

The most interesting moment of the second 2012 presidential debate came in the final minutes, when Barry Green, the last of the 82 supposedly undecided voters handpicked by the Gallup Poll, asked Governor Mitt Romney to describe the biggest misperception that the American people have about him as a person and a candidate. Predictably, he took the opportunity to declare that he cares about “100 percent of the American people,” allowing President Obama to remind those watching that it was Governor Romney himself who had left the impression that perhaps he did not care about 47 percent of his fellow countrymen.

But that was only the lead-in to what I found the most fascinating moment. After a few more predictable lines, followed by the briefest of pauses, Governor Romney suddenly transitioned into a discussion of his faith. “My passion probably flows from the fact that I believe in God”—a not so subtle challenge to Obama to respond in kind, which the President did not do— “and I believe we’re all children of the same God.”

Did he just go there? Yes, I think he did.

I had been waiting throughout the interminable “town-hall style” debate for someone to reprise the infamous question asked of President Bill Clinton in a 1994 MTV town-hall meeting, but this time with a twist: “Boxers or briefs, or sacred shorts?” No one, however, had the courage, or even the sense of humor, necessary to depart from his previously approved question. But now Governor Romney himself had brought Mormonism into the mix. Perhaps he had done so unintentionally, but making a statement that a Christian candidate would find unnecessary— “I believe we’re all children of the same God”—was bound to remind those who know something of the religion founded by Joseph Smith that Mormonism teaches we are literally the corporeal offspring of the Heavenly Father, and even that, until 1978, Mormonism had taught that the dark skin of such men as President Obama was the mark of Cain. This was, in his own limited way, Mitt Romney’s Jack Kennedy moment. And it was a reminder that, for good and ill, Governor Romney is no Jack Kennedy.

For someone long fascinated with this most American of religions, those few brief words almost made the entire evening worthwhile. Because in every other respect, in spite of the evident tension and vitriol between Governor Romney and President Obama, this debate was a non-debate.

Yes, each man claimed that he disagreed with the other—over education, unemployment, energy policy, taxes, immigration, outsourcing—and each claimed that the other had misrepresented his positions. And both made a run to the middle—but it was a middle far to the left of the consensus in 2000, let alone 1992 or 1980. Virtually every question asked by the town-hall crowd concerned areas that, constitutionally, belong to the states or the people rather than to the federal government. It is no surprise that President Obama finds “equal pay for equal work” a pressing federal question; but when Phyllis Schlafly worked tirelessly to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, I doubt that she anticipated the day when a Republican nominee for president would declare that what is necessary is equal pay for less work—which is what Romney’s call for “flexible hours” for female employees amounts to in practice.

Similarly, despite his pledge to kill Obama’s contraceptive mandate on Inauguration Day 2013, Governor Romney went out of his way to assure all those watching the debate that he, like President Obama, believes that “every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.” For his part, President Obama advocated economic nationalism in words that could have been torn from a column by Pat Buchanan, and extolled the role of traditional families, despite his endorsement of attempts to redefine marriage.

Anyone who could find a dime’s worth of difference between Governor Romney and President Obama in this debate had already made up his mind to do so before the debate started. Both men pledged to cut taxes on the middle class and small businesses and accused the other of lying about doing so. Both were adamant that illegal immigration must cease, but that all immigrants here illegally must be given a path to legalization. Governor Romney offered to staple a green card to the diploma of every college graduate in the entire world, while President Obama declared that anyone who thinks of himself as an American should be able to become an American (presumably even without a college diploma). Both promised to reduce the deficit while expanding funding for education and domestic sources of energy, and both claimed that the other could not do so.

I am in the frustrating yet enviable position of living in a state where the outcome of this election is not in doubt. Obama will sweep Illinois, as he did in 2008. That’s frustrating, because I sincerely want to see this most anti-Catholic of presidents deprived of a second term. It’s also enviable, because I don’t find it necessary to convince myself that Romney is the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, much less Jesus Christ.

And so, instead of yelling at the television as I once did, I shook my head while watching two grown men snipe at each other as if they were teenagers, and reflected on how far this country has moved to the left since 1980, the first election in which I was fully politically aware. And while I can say with certainty I won’t be voting for Barack Obama, I can walk into the voting booth on November 6 in perfect freedom, unburdened by the delusion that the fate of the United States depends on Mitt Romney, much less on me.

“Put not your trust in princes, in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation…. The Lord shall reign for ever: thy God, O Sion, unto generation and generation” (Psalm 146:3,10).

Scott P. Richert

By

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and writes the Guide to Catholicism for About.com.

  • Amy Dickas

    When Romney said that he thinks that all women should have access to contraceptives, he didn’t say that he agreed with the insurance mandate. Women currently have access to contraceptives. He is not favoring a change in the status quo – – something that the Obama campaign has tried to portray in their disingenuous claim that Romney is anti-woman. This is a disinction that you seem to gloss over in your article.

    • Scott Richert

      “When Romney said that he thinks that all women should have access to contraceptives, he didn’t say that he agreed with the insurance mandate.”

      Of course not. That’s why I wrote, “Similarly, despite his pledge to kill Obama’s contraceptive mandate on Inauguration Day 2013 . . . ”

      My point there was that “both made a run to the middle—but it was a middle far to the left of the consensus in 2000, let alone 1992 or 1980.” Can you imagine, Amy, Ronald Reagan going out of his way in a debate in 1980 to declare that all women should have access to contraceptives, so that voters wouldn’t think he was “anti-woman”?

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  • poetcomic1

    McDoleney Lite is a Viagra commercial just waiting to happen. Personally, I would rather Obama win and that the inevitable financial and ‘everything’ collapse happen on his watch.

    • Scott Richert

      poetcomic1, we don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils, but we cannot hope that the greater of two evils will triumph that something good might come of it down the line.

      Beyond that, I’m not sure that the idea that the “collapse [would] happen on his watch” would have the intended effect. Would it discredit the failed policies that the Obama administration has pursued? Perhaps. But it would also allow Republicans to pursue the failed policies of the Bush administration once again, because we’re in a situation today where the vast majority of American voters seem unable to think critically about these matters. We swing from pole to pole, not realizing that both poles represent undesirable outcomes.

  • MAT

    There’s alot more than a dime’s difference. President Obama doesn’t give a wit about religious freedom if it interferes with his goals. He has no respect whatsoever for the Catholic faith, and maybe even disdain. He is clearly pro-abortion as well. He believes in big government and for him government is next to God. There is a major difference in philosophy between these two men. Let’s not gloss over these chasm-life differences.

    • Scott Richert

      “There’s alot more than a dime’s difference. . . . Let’s not gloss over these chasm-like differences.”

      MAT, what I wrote was “Anyone who could find a dime’s worth of difference between Governor Romney and President Obama in this debate had already made up his mind to do so before the debate started.” I stand by that.

      If however, you think that Mitt Romney has really had a come-to-God moment on abortion, or that he believes in something that could reasonably be described as limited government, then I’m afraid that we disagree. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see Barack Obama defeated; I do. I just wish that we had a candidate for president who would be worth voting for on his own merits, and not simply because he’s not Barack Obama.

    • Kid Charlemagne

      Correction, to him big government IS God

  • msmischief

    There are those whose “black liberation theology” would indeed balk at the notion of our all being the children of the same God — those whose theology is Marxism with a few stolen phrases.

    To what extent was this theology promulgated at the church Obama attended? Well, that would be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

  • Adam_Baum

    Look, there’s no way Mitt Romney is Ronald Reagan. That’s not the choice here. What he is not-is a seething cauldron of resentment and narcissism, with copious amounts of Marx. He might get something right once in a while, rather than getting everything wrong.

    Obama is a maniac at controls of state. The ship is is choppy waters, and he’s steering us right into the storm.

    The country hasn’t “moved” to the left, its been pushed to autocracy. Behind ever contrived indignity is a politician promising freedom from want, but creating more dependency-compromising the independence of electorate and erecting a new 21st century feudal state, where the serfs surrender their more and more liberty to all-powerful sovereign in exchange for protection.

    • Scott Richert

      “Look, there’s no way Mitt Romney is Ronald Reagan. That’s not the choice here.”

      It’s also not the point. The point, as I wrote, is that “both made a run to the middle—but it was a middle far to the left of the consensus in 2000, let alone 1992 or 1980.”

      “The country hasn’t ‘moved’ to the left, its been pushed to autocracy.” Yes and no. Yes, the political and cultural and economic elite have pushed the country in that direction, but the people I know who call themselves conservatives today would have been moderate liberals, at best, in my youth. And I’m not that old.

      “Behind ever contrived indignity is a politician promising freedom from want, but creating more dependency . . . ”

      Very true—of both major parties.

      • Adam_Baum

        “Yes and no. Yes, the political and cultural and economic elite have
        pushed the country in that direction, but the people I know who call
        themselves conservatives today would have been moderate liberals, at
        best, in my youth. And I’m not that old.”

        Scott, you can’t judge the political drift by attitudes-what matters is voting, especially when it is institutionalized. Dependency is to the secular left, its mechanized warfare. Once you get vast swaths of the electorate hooked (whether its food stamps or free contraceptives) they’ll think of their masters as beneficent leaders-and will adopt their attitudes without much thought. My grandmother’s generation, was exceptionally conservative SOCIALLY but voted for Democrats, because they were conditioned early in life that Democrats supported the organized labor that dominated their lives. I distinctly remember being shocked by the vigorous support of Bill Clinton by a now deceased great-aunt. As long as he whispered sweet redistributionalist nothings in her ear, nothing else mattered. Her response to being challenged on voting for a candidate openly supportive of abortion was to repeat simple-minded nostrums.

        By golly FDR solved the depression with the WPA and the CCC and she wasn’t going to hear otherwise, because no wet-behind-the-ears kid was going to tell her that there was no “Saint Franklin”. Pavlov smiled every time she blithered on about Democrats and Unions.

        Today, we have two major factors affecting the drift. The attitudes are shaped by the collegiate environment which is a secularist, statist and libertine re-education camp, but the real drift comes from people who are hooked on conspicuous government benefits. You can outgrow the lunacy of the academy-especially when you think of your sweet daughter being treated as a receptacle-but once the master gives you food-stamps, college loans or subsidies for your business-you’ll tolerate all sorts of shenanigans.

        Even if a new Ronald Reagan came along-he’d never duplicate the 49 state landslide. California, New York, Illinois and several other states could never vote for fiscal restraint.

        Romney is at heart an Ivy technocrat. He believes in the state. He will never say government is the problem, even though it is the problem. I expect, if he wins, frequent and serious disappointments. However, the American body politic is very sick. Obama offers bleeding (especially in a fiscal sense) as the constant and only treatment. Hopefully, Romney will offer a few bandages and we can live to fight another day.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Those whose first political principle is equality have always had a tendency to support despotism

      To take an obvious historical example, the French Revolution was a rebellion against noble and clerical privilege, rather than against royal power and Napoleonic absolutism was its consummation, not its reversal. To the egalitarian, government must not be arbitrary, but it must be powerful enough to repress arbitrary action in others. If the supreme power is needlessly limited, the secondary powers will run riot and oppress. Its supremacy will bear no check.

      They see every group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs as a threat to equality and by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, they seek to emancipate the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to that of the state

    • Kid Charlemagne

      So true

  • Jim Dooley

    “Anyone who could find a dime’s worth of difference between Governor Romney and President Obama in this debate had already made up his mind to do so before the debate started.”
    The best epitomizing of the debate that I have read. This discussion was by, of, and for their respective focus groups. It is what our national politics has become. Any serious expectation that the reach of the National Government, except in matters of economics, should limit itself appears, in the prevailing lights of both parties, quaint.

  • hombre111

    Obama’s approach to religion is typically Protestant and shows a realistic awareness that we live in a pluralistic society. The U.S. bishops, while they mouth their allegiance to mutual tolerance in a pluralistic society, which demands a certain amount of uncomfortable compromise, want the U.S. to follow the Catholic approach to contraception. Ronald Reagan and any other typical Protestant would have wondered, most of them sincere and prayerful in their faith, why the Catholic preoccupation with birth control. Most people of sincere conscience of most faiths do not agree with the Catholic view. Is it possible in a pluralistic society for the Catholic Church to force its view on everybody else?

    • Scott Richert

      “The U.S. bishops . . . want the U.S. to follow the Catholic approach to contraception.”

      So those Protestants who also agree that no one should be forced to subsidize the use of contraception by others are really crypto-Catholics?

      hombre111, if you can find a single U.S. Catholic bishop who, since Griswold v. Connecticut, has stated that contraception should not be legal to sell, please let me know. I’d like to congratulate him.

      • hombre111

        I don’t think that is the issue. What they are looking for ( I think) is an exception to the rule. In other words, they do not want Catholic Colleges and similar institutions to be forced to pay for BC in their insurance programs. So, Obama and the insurance companies decided that, in those situations, BC should be provided for free and the Church pays nothing. This was not acceptable to the bishops, who are trying to figure out how to get rid of birth control, period. Even though most thoughtful people of other faiths disagree with their moral assessment of the issue. They also moved the goal post. Now, they began to insist that any Catholic or other employer with consience issues should not have to pay for insurance that provides birth control. This, of course, turns the whole thing into a free-for-all and is one more reason the majority of women in America think that the Catholic Church despises women. As a Campus Minister, I watched the best and brightest in my parish come this conclusion. We would have our conversation, I would ask for hope and trust, and most of them would go away.
        I guess that’s OK because the conservatives including Pope Benedict seem to want a smaller Church. But I grieve at the loss.

        • Scott Richert

          “So, Obama and the insurance companies decided that, in those situations, BC should be provided for free and the Church pays nothing.”

          hombre111, are you naive or disingenuous? Birth control will be paid for by those institutions that provide the insurance. All Obama did was claim that it would be provided for free. In the first year, that means that insurance companies will have to eat the cost (and insurance executives, rather than joining Obama in offering this, have complained mightily about it).

          But when those policies come up for renewal, the costs of birth control will be rolled into the overall cost of the policy. The insurance companies will not be able to have a line-item charge for that coverage; instead, they will simply raise rates across the board.

          That’s how the insurance industry works, and that’s the problem here. It’s all sleight-of-hand; Catholic institutions will still subsidize the use of something that the Church teaches is immoral, and it’s simply a lie for President Obama to claim otherwise.

          “This was not acceptable to the bishops, who are trying to figure out how to get rid of birth control, period.”

          If that’s true, then you should have no trouble complying with my request. Quote a single statement by a single U.S. Catholic bishop who, since Griswold v. Connecticut, has stated that contraception should not be legal. And explain to me why Protestants who are pro-contraception have joined the Catholic Church in fighting the contraception mandate.

          • hombre111

            Very thought provoking post. Good job. I will have to do some more reading.

    • Kid Charlemagne

      “Force its view” is a secular way of thinking that suggests the church is attempting to conform the world to its belief system. That is absolutely NOT the church’s mission, nor has it ever been. The church’s position on contraceptives is a DEFENSE of its beliefs, not an OFFENSE against non believers (as the “forced view” argument suggests). Change your paradigm. Instead of thinking of it as forcing a view, start thinking of it as defending, protecting, and preserving a belief. Lest there is any doubt, the successful defense of the belief does NOT force ANYONE to become Catholic or even agree with Catholic beliefs; it merely requires they respect those beliefs IF they elect to be an employee of a Catholic organization.

      • hombre111

        It occurs to me that one of the problems is this: You weren’t there when it happened. By that I mean Humanae Vitae. Millions of Catholics left the Church over this encyclical. As a young priest, I gathered in a meeting of priests with our bishop and we agonized over what was supposed to happen. We ended up taking the position expressed publicly by the Canadian bishops: After explaining the position of the encyclical, people would be treated like adults and invited to follow their own informed, prayerful consciences. This was the position taken by most of the bishops in the U.S..
        Beginning with Pope John Paul, the only men chosen to be bishops were men who pledged to follow without question the encyclical. After enough time went by, they were the only bishops left and the encyclical was “infallible” because all the opposition had been carefully excluded from the process. Not very honest, in my book.
        Anyway, today, the conservative pope and his conservative bishops and conservative Catholics on one side, and all the rest of the Church on the other.

        • Adam_Baum

          You are a priest the way termites are residents of a home.

          Your God is the state and you seem quite content to tear down the Church.

          • hombre111

            Pope Benedict and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church talk about the necessary role of government. Read and be enlightened.
            As for the Church’s teaching on contraception: Explaining something in terms of intrinsic evil is not necessarily the best way to explain it. Humanae Vitae was really bad catechesis.

            • Adam_Baum

              Government is necessary. An unlimited scope and scale is not necessary or desirable-and in no Church document are we directed to acquiesce to tyranny-of the soft or hard variety. Try reading anything but Das Kapital.

              “Explaining something in terms of intrinsic evil is not necessarily the best way to explain it.”

              Really? I give you Nazism. Explain it anyway but in terms of intrinsic evil.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jflare29 John Flaherty

    Mr. Richert,
    I too felt that this debate wound up being quite revealing. I had been hoping to some degree that Romney, after having worked his way through the primaries, might have learned a little something about the sanctity of life and the value of the American nation. Based on last night’s debate, I’m hard pressed as ever to declare that he get it.

    I find this a rather annoying situation really: On one hand, I feel that by my citizenship in America, I have an obligation to express my intent with my vote to the best of my ability. This DOES mean that I not only must choose who most closely represents my views, but ALSO who I think can act upon those values; in other words, who can be elected to actually instill those values into law.
    On these grounds, knowing that the chances of a third candidate to win stand between nil and none, I can’t vote for a third party candidate.
    Because of this, even if Romney still poses some degree of inept view regarding morals, this still poses a step closer to virtue than what President Obama has presented.

    In other words, I’m rather disappointed with Romney’s lack of concern for ensuring that all people have the right to be alive, just as I’m disgusted with his indifference toward useful education.
    Even so, I’ll vote for him because he’ll at least give us the slightest bit of breathing room that President Obama will not.

    It stinks as a choice, but with Ryan as his running mate, there’s at least an outside chance that we can have a Presidential candidate in a succeeding year that DOES understand morals.

    • Scott Richert

      Mr. Flaherty, I posted a response to your thoughtful remarks, but it seems to have disappeared. I suspect the problem is that it included links, and therefore got pulled into moderation.

      I’ve asked the editor to see if he can find the comment and restore it. If not, I’ll post another comment later today with the substance of the previous one, but without the links.

    • Scott Richert

      Mr. Flaherty, the editor hasn’t been able to find out what happened to my comment. So I’ll provide a short version of it here.

      If you’re interested in attempting to break out of the frustrating situation of always voting for the lesser of two evils, type “Rob Johansen” in the search box at the bottom of this page, and then read “Our Faustian Bargain: Catholics Caught Between Parties.”

      You can find my take on the same questions in the posts “Where Do We Go From Here” and “Where Faith and Politics Intersect” on the About.com Catholicism GuideSite (which you can reach through the link in my bio).

  • Kid Charlemagne

    Good commentary, but there’s no good reason to degrade Romney’s religion; Jesus specifically commanded us not to do that. You’re not setting a good example for other Catholics to follow. I seriously doubt the New Evangelization effort will benefit from religious bigotry. Rather than degrade others’ religions, let’s instead focus on extolling the truth of our own.

    • JTLiuzza

      Jesus commanded us not to degrade other’s religions? Really? Can you point to exactly where He said that?
      You talk like a confused liberal. Pointing out that there is one Church and one Church only, and it is Catholic, is not “bigotry.”

    • Scott Richert

      “there’s no good reason to degrade Romney’s religion”

      Kid Charlemagne, I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Are you referring to these facts (which, as facts, can hardly be attempts to degrade)?

      “the religion founded by Joseph Smith”
      “Mormonism teaches we are literally the corporeal offspring of the Heavenly Father”
      “until 1978, Mormonism had taught that the dark skin of such men as President Obama was the mark of Cain”

      If, on the other hand, you’re referring to “boxers, briefs, or sacred shorts,” then all I can say is: Lighten up. Seriously.

      As a Catholic, I’ve always appreciated a good scapular joke.

  • Stefanie

    Thank you for this commentary. We watched the debate at a family gathering with all of our adult children (including my new daughter-in-law), my 78-year old Forever-Republican father, and my formerly-Democrat-now Reagan Republican Vietnam Vet husband. It was endlessly fascinating to me to watch and hear their reactions to the ‘war of words’ debate. You are right; no one in the family of 7 registered voters changed their minds based upon the debate.
    My daughter-in-law is for the President simply because she is afraid that Governor Romney will indeed overturn ‘Obamacare’ (altho she refers to it by its legal name – PACA, I think it’s called). She is several months from applying for med school and is depending upon the promised incentives within that Act which will provide the funding for her med school education. She comes from a very poor background, went to a state university on full scholarship, is a very faithful Christian, and has the brains and the compassion to be an excellent doctor. She has no desire to get rich, but only to serve God through the medical profession.
    After the debate, when the young adult children were aghast at the behavior or both candidates, I reminded them that most of the time, voters are faced with candidates who may not share your values. In fact, the only presidential candidate that I remember I really wanted to vote for was President Nixon in 1972 (and I was two years shy of being eligible to vote) because he had got us out of the Vietnam War, he was reaching out to China for trade and commerce, and it looked like the future was rosy on the domestic front as well. Then after the election, the Watergate scandal broke and the lack of trust in our elected officials has snowballed ever since. My entire voting life has taken place amidst various show-stopping political scandals. That’s why in 1974, on my 18th birthday, I registered as ‘non-partisan’ and I’ve never been tempted to change it. I am amused to no end that being ‘non-partisan’ was considered ridiculous up until the last few election cycles. Now, we are courted day and night by everyone.
    As a faithful and practicing Catholic (not always, but I came home in 1996) who has seen the physical and pyschological long-term effects from legalized abortion on my like-age friends, I will never vote for someone who proclaims unplanned pregnancy as a punishment from an angry god. I was an unplanned pregnancy — though born 9 months after my parents’ marriage, but my parents loved each other and welcomed the physical product of their love — me. Was it hard for them financially? Very. But due to their Catholic beliefs, my parents felt ‘called’ to welcome my life and the lives of my four siblings.
    My daughter-in-law is completely against abortion and would refuse to be a medical accessory to one. But there are others ways to be an accessory to the crime of abortion. In my opinion — and in the opinion of many of our bishops– voting for a person who has always advocated abortion — even late-term abortion– is indeed being an accessory to the crime of abortion. She and I spoke about Mother Teresa’s conviction that the spiritual death of this wonderful country is based upon the fact that we can legally murder the ‘unborn.’ The good our country does can be negated due to our murdering the unborn. I’m not quite sure if my daughter-in-law will decide that this one issue — the right to life–is more important than financing medical school. I am glad that I was given the opportunity to gently state it.

    • Scott Richert

      Stefanie, thank you for your very thoughtful comments. It’s interesting to read about your daughter-in-law. My own daughter (in her senior year of high school) was considering a pre-med program, but after researching the Affordable Care Act on her own (with no input from me or my wife), she decided against it, because she believes that the medical profession will become much more bureaucratized (as if it isn’t bureaucratic enough already), and that opportunities for doctors truly to serve their patients, and not to act as agents of an increasingly intrusive federal bureaucracy, will vanish.

    • Adam_Baum

      “My daughter-in-law is for the President simply because she is afraid
      that Governor Romney will indeed overturn ‘Obamacare’ (altho she refers
      to it by its legal name – PACA, I think it’s called). She is several
      months from applying for med school and is depending upon the promised
      incentives within that Act which will provide the funding for her med
      school education. She comes from a very poor background, went to a
      state university on full scholarship, is a very faithful Christian, and
      has the brains and the compassion to be an excellent doctor. She has no
      desire to get rich, but only to serve God through the medical
      profession.”

      And I offer her as an example of somebody whose “faithful Christian” outlook get as tossed in the voting booth as long as the tyrant offers her conspicuous benefits. I hope she isn’t disillusioned when Obamacare reaches is full conclusion and her job more resembles Jack Kevorkian than Dr. Quinn.

  • Robert

    I feel that neither candidate is compatible with church teachings or even with American society. Romney may claim to believe in God but promotes a view that materialism is the highest aim. Obama is a Marxist and thus has little respect for religion at all. Both candidates are bad and they represent the worst of modern society.

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